Australian PM promises independents not to call early election

Independent MPs needed for main parties to form government after hung election insist on government that will run for full term.

CANBERRA // The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, promised three key independent politicians today that she would govern Australia for a full three-year term if they supported her administration, as part of negotiations following indecisive elections. The independents are likely to decide whether Ms Gillard's Labor Party or opposition leader Tony Abbott's Liberal Party-led coalition forms a government after elections failed to give any party a 76-seat majority in the 150-seat House of Representatives for the first time in 70 years.

Independents Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Bob Katter opened negotiations with the two leaders on Wednesday and presented each with lists of requests including a demand for a binding undertaking to govern for the full three years. A prime minister might be tempted to call an early election as soon as opinion polls showed a chance of winning a majority. Ms Gillard gave that undertaking, although she said a by-election cause by a government MP becoming sick could be enough to bring down a minority administration.

"If I was the incoming prime minister, out of this process, to the extent that I could control it, my guarantee to go full term is unequivocal," Ms Gillard told reporters. The conservative opposition leader Mr Abbott was not immediately available for comment after his meeting with the independents that followed Ms Gillard's. The independents say their top demand is for details of how much competing election promises would cost the nation, in areas including telecommunications, health and education.

Ms Gillard said she was inclined to release what costings were available. But as caretaker prime minister, she would also need Mr Abbott's authority to release such budget information. Labor, which has governed for the past three years, and the opposition coalition accused each other during the five-week election campaign of understating the costs of their own promises. Mr Windsor said most of the budget costs revealed to the independents should be made public, except in sensitive areas including defence.

The three independents have expressed preference for Labor's promise to build a A$43 billion high-speed optical fibre national broadband network, a major election platform. The Liberals would build a smaller, slower A$bn network with a range of technologies including optical fiber, wireless and DSL. Mr Windsor said he suspected that the Labor price tag was "a fictitious number," and wanted to uncover the true cost.

He also gave in-principle support for Labor's plan to place a 30 per cent tax on iron ore and coal miners' burgeoning profits, which is expected to raise an additional A$10.5bn in tax revenue. The Liberals have promised to oppose the tax, a stance Mr Windsor said was based on political rather than economic reasons. The kingmaker independents have promised to support whoever best offers stable government, but say a final deal cannot be struck until after final vote counts, which could come late next week.

Adam Bandt, the only candidate from the environment-focused Greens party to win a seat in the lower house, said he proposed supporting Labor. But he wanted the next government to allow gay marriage and to make polluters pay for their carbon gas pollution. The major parties oppose gay marriage. The Liberals oppose any carbon tax, while Labor wants a tax but not in the next three-year term. The Greens oppose Australia having 1,550 troops in Afghanistan and want them withdrawn. Since the party emerged from the election with Mr Bandt and an additional four senators who greatly increase the Greens' influence, Greens leader Senator Bob Brown has said that he wants parliament to debate the deployment soon.

Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott said they did not object to parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, but remained committed to the Australian mission there. The Australian Electoral Commission preliminary counts updated on today found Labor and the coalition each held 71 seats, with more than 79 percent of the vote counted. Another three seats were too close to call. * AP

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